Mike Mandel is best known in the art world as one half of Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, the guerrilla artists that terrorized the Bay Area in the 1970s with their scathing billboard “advertisements” featuring flaming oranges and mushroom clouds. At first glance, the strange installations were graphically cohesive enough to blend in with the warm, modern scenery—the exact sort of scenery Mandel captured in his motel photography. Traveling across the country for this or that art project, Mandel started out collecting postcards from sleazy little motels, but eventually started taking pictures himself, taking the viewer on a sort of ghostly tour of long-gone 70s design and road culture.
...traveling throughout the country, my girlfriend at the time, Alison Woolpert, and I would stay at some, shall we say, “economy” motels. We pulled into one in Texas on a wintry night and upon waking in the morning we realized that the sheets had not been changed after the visit of the previous motel guest. When we indignantly complained to the owner he shot us back a dirty look, “What do you expect for five dollars?” What we did expect was that no matter how shabby, beaten down or forgotten a motel might have become, there was always a motel postcard to be had: a memento of a one night stop, a promotional calling card, a free mailable note card to report back on the progress of a vacation to those back home.
We would often take the back roads, sometimes follow old Route 66, and we would find those sad, forsaken motels that had been sucked almost out of existence by the newer corporate chains situated just off an exit ramp on the newer highways. We bypassed Motel 6, Travelodge and Howard Johnson’s. After all, their postcards were usually just the same design with a different address. But we’d go out of our way to stop at every independent motel we could find in hopes of finding a postcard that would be even more banal than the one we had just found down the road.
To the modern eye, everything looks retro and trashy (especially if you’ve ever stayed in a motel that hasn’t redecorated since this period), but the complete lack of human subjects gives the series a stark, tidy effect. I’d imagine a hotel could get some serious kitsch-seeker traffic if they tried to decorate like this today. Stay in a cheap, sleazy shithole and be “ironic.” What a great country we live in, eh?